4 March 2002

Not fade away

Heartfelt thanks to wood s lot for bringing us a daily serving of mind food. I was especially nourished by the Manuel DeLanda and the Olympic beer riot essays–but you bring us more good thinking than I can begin to digest.

( 10:11 AM )
Reading and Faith

On Saturday, David Weinberger asked two shabbos-themed questions: “Where can we read what you think about the possibility of reading the Bible without a faithful commitment (of some sort), i.e., the Bible as literature? Can it be done?”

Well, I suppose “here” is the only answer to the first question, although the topic already figures obliquely in most of what I write. I say “obliquely” because biblical scholars have fought such fierce battles over the legitimacy of interpretations grounded in (secular) historical reasoning that one can hardly take up the subject directly without seeming to advocate an already-established party line. The problems that arise from simply accepting these given pictures of interpretation-from-faith and interpretation-from-secularity provoke much of my absorption in postmodern theory. If you read my various essays as attempts to dismantle the siegeworks that separate “secular” from “theological” interpretations, with each side boosting its own legitimate practices and assailing the other’s biased or corrupted practices, you will get a rough picture of how I’d answer the question.

But David followed up with the second query, so I’ll try to give a brief account of an explicit answer here.

Unhelpful response: Sure; people do it all the time, from casual skimming by disengaged browsers to exquisitely nuanced close readings. To take one example, Robert Alter (though firmly Judaic) offers literary interpretations of the Bible that one need not share his faith in order to appreciate. And as I suggested Saturday, the whole academic discipline of “biblical studies” operates on the principle that anyone who’s read enough, thought enough, and paid close enough attention to the text and its historical context ought to be able to participate in the discussion of the Bible. The Journal of Biblical Literature and Novum Testamentum are not addressed to believers, but to interested scholars.

I suspect, though, that that doesn’t get to the dimension of the question that motivated David to ask. David’s question echoes a theme sounded very forcefully by critics like Matthew Arnold (who argued that we ought to read the Bible as we would any other book) and C. S. Lewis (who argued that one can’t really read the Bible as any other book, that a reader’s denial of the Bible’s foregrounded tenets amounts to a resistance to the book itself) and Erich Auerbach (who in celebrated chapters of his book Mimesis suggested that the biblical narratives distinguish themselves from other contemporary literature in the very texture of their literary composition. (Dave Rogers, the “Connect & Empower” Dave Rogers, suggests as good reads the anthology Incarnation edited by Alfred Corn, and Larry Woiwode’s interpretation of the Book of Acts [out of print]; I add, for symmetry’s sake, the book Congregation edited by David Rosenberg [also out of print], which was the Old-Testament precedent that sired Incarnation as its New-Testament offspring.) Can one, as it were, really read the Bible apart from some sort of “faithful commitment”? I mean, really read it?

That question I dare not answer. It presumes that I could somehow escape my own experiences (which embrace both apart-from-faith and faith-full readings) to evaluate the authenticity (!) of another soul’s reading of the Bible. At the same time, I will say that there’s something about the interplay of living faith with attentive reading that fecundates provocative, stimulating interpretations. These are possible apart from faith, and heaven knows that faith in itself doesn’t engender interesting biblical interpretation, but when a deep reverence combines with literacy and sensitivity, then something special, something different and precious is liable to happen.

Can one read the Bible apart from a faithful commitment? Yes, indeed.

Does being a committed Jew, or Christian, or something-else make one ipso facto a better, more reliable, privileged reader? No, not a bit.

May someone who deeply loves the material and subject of the Bible read the Bible with a sympathy and sensitivity that someone less committed might not be able to muster? That seems plausible to me.

Does that mean everyone has to listen to what I say? I hope that no one is so foolish as to think so.

Unceasing wonders

While I’ve been trying to keep the theological content of this blog a seasoning—rather than a main course—a number of correspondents have acknowledged my voice among you all exactly as a theological presence. Your gift of patient attention and appreciation touches and, in a way, surprises me. I’m listening, and I’ll try to honor the complexity of speaking to your hearts from my own, with all our differences and shared interests. Thank you and, if I may say so, God bless you.

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